What a fucking year it’s been. Thank god it’s almost over. I hope next year is better, but even if next year is the year the sky opens up and butt-eating demons from the eighth dimension pour down on all of us, it’s still nice to wrap the year up. It’s still nice to get that feel of a clean slate, and all the possibility that comes with it. Next years horrors will be organized into a separate list from this years, and I’m happy with that.
This year has had extraordinary highs and extraordinary lows and I’m not about to unpack them all for public consumption… But more than anything I’m grateful for the support you all have given me and my work, even as the world burned around us. I remember when it first sank in how devastating the coronavirus was going to be, and I really thought that all the years I spent planning for this year were for naught. I came into 2020 with a theory about what I think I could do to make the Batman comic sell, and how I could funnel all of that energy into my creator owned books to make them sell, too.
That was what the idea of the Empire of the Tiny Onion was… How do you keep the ball rolling once you have something hit? It felt like all of that was just crumbling in my hands. Covid-19 was going to hobble the knees of my Batman run and end any hopes of me continuing on the title. I wasn’t going to be able to keep funding Department of Truth without a release date and I might lose Martin to some other project. Wynd and SIKTC were going to be buried in the middle of this nowhere year and both series would end unceremoniously and prematurely. And I’d be sitting here at the end of the year without any of these projects and uncertain prospects for the future.
There were months where, especially here on the newsletter, I was grinning and handselling the crap out of books through tears and pain and panic, absolutely unsure if any of it was going to work, or if it was going to connect… I am pretty sure at some point in April I had a conversation with my friend and mentor Scott Snyder about taking some kind of admin role in his new publishing entity Best Jackett Press if I crashed and burned… But miraculously the books found their audiences, and I was able to parlay my success on Batman into success elsewhere and build on that success. I gambled big on 2020, and somehow that gamble paid itself off, and now I’m going to work my ass off to pay it all forward in a year I hope brings more stability to the comic book industry. Or at least, a little less instability.
Most of my next year is already announced, with the news about the ongoing JOKER title at DC. I have one unannounced book on the docket for sometime mid-2021, with Alvaro Martinez Bueno… The book I called PROJECT LAKEHOUSE back when I was using my clever monikers at the start of this newsletter. The cover to the first issue of that one has been the lock-screen of my phone for the last few months. It’s a weird book that I’m excited to talk a bit more about in a few months’ time, and I’m spending a lot of time thinking about it this week… We have some exciting stuff brewing in and around Something is Killing the Children which will be exciting as well. I might sneak in one more original by the end of next year, but probably only one or two issues before 2022? We’ll see.
Other than that, I’m going to be chugging along on BATMAN, JOKER, DOT, SIKTC, WYND, and continue publishing RAZORBLADES: THE HORROR MAGAZINE quarterly. Hopefully at some point I’ll get to sleep a little. Right now I’m assuming conventions aren’t happening until Q4 of 2021 at the earliest, which means I can write more than I would otherwise (spoilers for non-creators, every convention usually wipes out a full calendar week of productivity, and I used to do 10 or more of those suckers a year)… I think even when they do come back I’m going to keep my slate light. A couple of domestic shows a year, and a couple of international shows a year. As much as I can, I want to stop putting myself in a gauntlet and racing myself to death.
But there’s one more gauntlet I wanted to put myself through in public for all of you. I started writing this newsletter with the intention of it running as a singular piece, but as the page count grew and passed 20 pages in my dinky little word document I figured it might be best to break it all up.
So here’s how we’re going to do it:
PART ONE (This Newsletter): Some Thoughts and Principles about the Comics Industry and the priorities and assumptions that shape my work, along with updates on RAZORBLADES: THE HORROR MAGAZINE (which has officially started to ship).
PART TWO (Tomorrow): The Batman Show – Big picture thinking and talking about what I am excited about in 2021 in regards to the newly monthly BATMAN title with Jorge Jimenez and the brand new ongoing JOKER title with Guillem March… Maybe some hints at some of the new characters we’re creating in each title.
PART THREE (Wednesday): The Creator Owned Update – Updates on THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH, SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN, and WYND, some hints at other irons I have in the fire, and some of the books and comics that most inspired me most this year.
So… Onto today’s portion…
I wanted write some of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few weeks. Which is more of what I want to get this newsletter back to. I think from late summer through October I was just in full-on salesman mode with this bad boy, which was exhilarating in a lot of ways, but mostly exhausting. I set out to have a home for my thoughts on the comic book industry at large, and I want to get back to that a bit when I get into the new year.
I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances ask me for my thoughts on the comics business, and the sorts of priorities I’ve been centering as I’ve built each of my comic projects… So I thought I’d write up a little manifesto of sorts that lays out where I’m coming from.
None of this is scientific, it’s all anecdotal and based on what I’ve found has worked for me. It all organizes down to five fundamental assumptions I have about the comic book industry, what those assumptions say about what problems we face, and how I’m looking to address those problems. I think there are valid counter-arguments to each point, and there are very successful creators right now whose work flies in the face of these assumptions. But, at the end of the day, all I can point to is what has been working for me philosophically speaking in what has been the most tangibly successful year in my 9 years working in comics.
Also: I want to limit the scope of the conversation here to mass-market comic books. If you’re out there trying to do niche content for niche audiences, then these goalposts don’t matter for you, and you should go forth and make weird stuff and I am going to hunt it down and read it because I LOVE weird niche comic stuff… At the end of the day you should be pursuing the kind of comics that speak most to you.
But I think this kind of stuff DOES matter in regards to the sort of content that can break through in the direct market. You need to consider the audience you want to buy your book and consider why they should pick your book over the alternatives in this medium and other mediums. There are different answers to the question based on what audience you’re targeting. The audience I’ve been targeting is the one I’ve been talking about on and off in this newsletter for the last year - The passive comic fan who probably only buys a few trades a year, and the new reader, who has some vague ideas about popular comics (probably has a friend who’s more plugged in), but is just trying it on for size to see if it fits.
I’d say that reader is usually roughly 15-25 years old. Maybe a little younger or a little older, but it’s young people with some (but not much) pocket change who don’t have kids yet. Other media points them into the comic shop, and our job is to try and capture them in that brief, fleeting moment, before other geek media (or other corners of the comic book industry) capture them and they’re gone for good.
So… Take it all with a grain of salt, but if you’re interested in where I’m coming from, read on. If you’re just here for me to talk about Batman, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.
Okay. Here are my five assumptions…
1. WE HAVE WON BACK THE FUTURE OF OUR MEDIUM, BUT NOT OUR INDUSTRY
When I started reading comics regularly as a teenager, comics for kids really weren’t a thing anymore. The closest thing was maybe Calvin & Hobbes collections you could pick up in the humor section of a bookstore. But now we have over a decade of consistent, bestselling work in the hands of elementary and middle schoolers thanks to Jeff Smith, Raina Telgemeier, and Dav Pilky. All the major publishers are putting out graphic novel content now, with most creating entire graphic novel divisions. Graphic novels have claimed space in libraries and bookstores, and kids are growing up knowing HOW to read comic books, which is half the ballgame. The last time this many kids grew up on comic books was in the peak newsstand era.
So, on one hand, there’s the sigh of relief that there’s a hypothetical audience that will continue breeding life-long comic book fans. That is absolutely great to know as a creator. My hope is that the 10 year old reading Dog-Man today is the 30 year old reading my horror comics when I’m 53. Here is the problem: Unless they grow up in a geek household, they don’t know about comic book shops, and for those who do… the superhero content on the shelves in those comic shops looks roughly the same as what they can get at home with superhero movies and TV shows, but isn’t in the same continuity as those movies or tv shows, and there’s not a clear way in to those mythologies (except for Star Wars, which has clear labels about how their whole media ecosystem is connected – Which is smart).
So that’s the bit of math we are trying to solve: There is a hungry audience getting older ready for the content we’re making droves of, and there is a distribution system, but the distribution system is still built for the hungry post-Newstand audience of the 1970s, not the hungry post-Scholastic book fair audience of the 2020s. If we don’t build the bridge between the direct market and that audience, the book publishing and bookselling world is going to swallow the comic book industry once and for all and our corner of the comics industry – dominated by serialized genre pulp content – is at risk of dying.
I don’t think it has to.
2. WE HAVE CEDED TOO MUCH GROUND TO MANGA AND VIDEO GAMES
So, you have a young person. Let’s say he’s 15 years old, and he grew up on middle-grade American comics he’d get at a scholastic book fair, and he walks into a comic book shop. The superhero stuff has that uncanny valley look to it… It’s all versions of the characters he kind of knows, but they’re a little different than how they look in the movies, and it feels like each of them comes with homework and they don’t want to feel stupid for not knowing something that they should know. There’s plenty of middle-grade and YA stuff, but now he’s an older Teenager and that’s all “Kid Stuff”…
So, the whole direct market new release shelf glosses over in front of him and he finds himself in front of the Manga shelf. Where the stories start with a volume one and go on from there, and he’s heard about a few of the titles before from friends, but he hasn’t seen any blockbuster movies with his parents or anything… And then he picks them off the shelf, and every character has a really cool look, that looks NOTHING like the superhero characters from the movies and tv-shows. And get this… you get like 200 pages of content for the price of like, two floppy comic books. So that’s what the kid chooses to buy. And then he finds out he can get those books at any bookstore, or he can order them online, and then he never sets foot in a comic shop again, despite continuing to read comics. OR, the kid picks up nothing, and saves up his allowance/bugs his parents to get him a video game and he never reads a comic book again.
I have seen far too many people say that American comic books can’t compete with manga or video games, and so they don’t even try. Manga and Video Games are sexier than most modern comic books. They are more action-packed and violent than most modern comic books. They have more consistent long-form soap opera content than most modern comic books. But they still accomplish all of that without losing their fingers off the pulse of the mass market, all still targeting that all-important adolescent demographic. They are doing sex, violence, and relationships for teenagers in every genre imaginable, and those teens fall in love with their characters and draw fan-art and write fan-fiction of them and talk about them with their friends and build whole communities around it, just like every generation has in the history of geek culture. But the western comics scene is getting edged out of that conversation.
So that presents the second math problem to solve: How do you create something that captures the attention of that potential new reader that wants serialized genre pulp content that makes them pick up the comic book, instead of the Manga or the Video Game?
3. NEW READERS DON’T WANT YOUR HAND ME DOWNS
Look, at the end of the day, if you’re reading this newsletter you are probably a big nerd. It’s okay, so am I. Part of being a big nerd is that we carry a deep and powerful love of the same things we loved when we first found our love of the medium into our adult lives. We want the comics that mattered to us to be enshrined and respected, and we want the comics we continue reading to enshrine and respect those same comics. But to do that, puts comics in a position where there’s this self-referential and self-important echo chamber that is alienating to new readers. NOW, there’s always going to be a place for those types of comics, and there should be. We’re always going to want some niche content that scratches that itch for the die-hard lifers… The trouble is, over the last 20 years, I feel like almost ALL superhero comics have become those types of comics, and we’ve stopped seeing how niche that content is.
I’m guilty of it, too! My Detective Comics and JLD runs are chalk full of me bowing at the altars of my predecessors. I’d like to think I did a good job with it! When something is referential and reverential of past stories in a good way it can point readers to great comics of the past, and flipping through old long boxes is and will always be an important part of this hobby. I think the most successful content like that is something like the current X-Men line at Marvel, which fully embraces its convolution and doesn’t shy away from it. It’s a whole line of books for the X-Men lifers, who want to know what’s happening in the lives of every minor character from the X-Books that were on the stands when they first started reading, and it does it without favoring one era over any other. It can be revelatory to see someone uncover the depths of an era you might have undervalued (See how the Clone Wars animated series added depth to the whole Prequel Era of Star Wars movies), and that underpinning can make new readers only ever see those older eras through the lens of the smarter take. But you can’t pull off runs like the current Hickman X-Line without generations of new X-Men, and the generations of X-Men fans that found that franchise WITH those new characters. “Embracing all that came before” implies that there have been waves of what have come before, and every generation always wants its own, new characters to introduce them into that world.
How many of us, when we were teenagers, liked all the media our parents reverently passed down to us? I don’t know about you, but I was always drawn to the sorts of things that kind of flew over my parents’ heads. My Dad read Nick Fury and Thor comics when he was a kid, and my Mom read Archie, but by the time they were in high school they had left the comics rack behind. Which was great for me, because it was a world I could traverse on my own, and the worlds I discovered became my own. When I was about 10 years old, my Dad took me to a comic book shop and I was MESMERIZED by the X-Men: Age of Apocalypse crossover event. It had all come out at that point, and the shop had a whole section dedicated to the books. It looked cooler than anything I had seen before, and I got them all. I had watched the X-Men cartoon and had a rough idea of the mythology, but that Joe Mad art was like an artifact from another dimension, and since the storyline was an alternate history, it was that perfect combination of complicated enough that there was a whole exciting world to unpack, without being alienating because it was all self-contained. Now, I’m imagining a world in which that Comic Book Shop in the mid-late 90s had more books that were designed to appeal to the sensibilities of my 40 year old father, rather than my 10 year old id. If they were trying more to hand sell him a sophisticated adult take on Nick Fury and Thor rather than leaning into more of the adolescent exuberance that lay at the heart of the AOA comics…
Would I be reading comics today, let alone writing them?
Reading those books, I fell in love with Blink and Morph because they were MY CHARACTERS. You could tell reading the books that they were favorites of the writers and artists, getting to establish them and their dynamics among the whole X-mythos. I remember how disappointed I was to find out that Blink was dead in the main universe, and that Morph basically didn’t exist. That made me not want to pick up monthly X-Men comics, but then I DID pick up her solo miniseries when I eventually started it, and that road lead me to what would become a favorite book of my middle school comic book reading years: Exiles.
New readers want new characters that they can get in on the ground floor with. Once you give them those characters then you can use them to introduce those readers to the entire larger mythos those new characters are connected to. A new character deployed correctly creates new tensions, and new social dynamics in the core cast of a book, and gets a new generation pulled into the soap opera. I think we need to look at our comics through the eyes of the young new readers more often… The comic shop should be a portal to a thousand different fascinating worlds with new characters welcoming you to old franchises, alongside wholly new franchises that they’ll get to own wholesale with their generation of readers.
And to make this point clear: I’m not saying the more mature comics that are for the long-time reader shouldn’t exist! Back in the mid-late 90s, if that comic shop had something to offer my dad AS WELL as me, it would have been the strongest possible combination. Exciting adolescent content featuring new superhero characters embedded into classic franchises and sophisticated content featuring the characters adults grew up feels like the way forward to me. There should be content for new readers, die-hard readers, lapsed readers, etc. The issue is going all or nothing and I feel like we’re coming out of 20 years of very niche targeted work that is not accessible to the new readers our corner of the industry needs to survive. We keep playing to a shrinking in-crowd.
By the way, I think the importance of new iconic characters goes beyond just superhero comics. I know I’ve said this before, but I think over the last decade we’ve seen a lot of people trying to create a Sandman series without a Morpheus at the heart of it, or a Transmetropolitan without a Spider Jerusalem. Comics are a visual medium, and you should have a cool iconic looking characters at the heart of every comic book, particularly if you want young people in their late teens to early twenties to pick it up. I think people look at the Vertigo books of the 90s as the polar opposite of their superhero counterparts, but they just looked equally mind-blowingly cool in a totally different direction. When I was 10 years old the Joe Mad Age of Apocalypse pages blew my mind, but when I started spending my own money in high school, it was trade paperbacks of Vertigo books with characters that looked cooler than anything I had imagined before. Cool in a way that appealed to me as a pretentious teenager who thought that I was smarter than everyone around me.
Aesthetic matters, and exciting looking characters move comic books, and that’s true whether you’re writing superhero books or indy titles. I think you’ll find iconic characters at at the heart of every indy megahit of the last 20 years, even the most grounded ones. Look at The Walking dead – I guarantee you can picture Rick Grimes’ cowboy sheriff or Michonne’s wasteland ronin with a katana look when you close your eyes. Those iconic characters are posters in and of themselves that draw readers into your books. Every time somebody else draws your new character online, or gets and posts a commission of your character, or cosplays as your character is an advertisement of your book. Serialized pulp fiction has ALWAYS had iconic characters at their heart, and that is doubly true in a visual medium like comics. If a new generation of readers can’t find new characters to latch onto in western direct market comics, they will go to other media to find “their” characters, and manga and video games has characters ready and waiting for them to love.
4. BUT THEY DO WANT THE SAME CLASSIC STORIES
Most of us writing comics have been comics readers for ages, and we’ve seen a lot of stories told well featuring the characters we are gearing up to write for whatever company we’re about to write for. So, when we sit down to craft those stories, we often try to craft that hooky elevator pitch that takes everything in a whole exciting new direction. Everyone’s always trying to figure out the “Anatomy Lesson” style clever revamp of an entire mythos, reinterpreting everything that came before with a new lens. And it’s still possible to pull that kind of storytelling off well – I’d argue that’s what Al Ewing and Joe Bennett are doing spectacularly in their Immortal Hulk run… But at the end of the day, the pursuit of the “clever” take has led to a lot convoluted comics. A crowded pool of comic book writers vying for a limited number of gigs mean that writers often have to show off, and without a clever “twist” to your pitch, your pitch might not land you the gig after all. There’s a kind of one-upmanship that leads to a lot of people trying to prove that they’re the smartest kid in the class, trying to go after recognition from their peers more than keeping their eyes on the fundamental question:
What is a reader actually looking for when they pick up a comic book?
The question is different when you’re looking at the niche audience of comic book lifers, vs new readers who are just testing the water to see if they want to come in. The lifers are more interested in a novel take, even an overcomplicated one, because it’s different than the 30+ years of comics that are already in their brain. The newcomers want more of the basics because it’s all new to them and they’re discovering the tropes for the first time… With Superheroes, they want to know about their powers, and/or their gadgets, and they want to see them using those powers and/or gadgets in new and exciting ways. They want to see cool looking people fighting cool looking people in cool looking ways with a good bit of soap opera draped around all of it to make them care about and connect to the characters at the heart of those stories. The more we overthink that, the more people we lose.
I remember back when the Black Panther movie came out, how blown away I was about how deftly they built all of this complicated Marvel lore into one of the most successful superhero movies of all time, but when I looked at it closer, it’s because it stripped itself down to such a simple story that felt archetypal and Shakespearean. It’s a story about Brother vs Brother (or rather Cousin vs. Cousin), fighting for the throne and the future of their kingdom. It’s the sort of story we’ve been telling for thousands of years, that our mythologies are rich with, and it didn’t stand in its own way or overcomplicate those pieces, it just told the story well, using the Marvel Universe as a backdrop, and treating all of these characters and their mythology as new (because to most of the people watching the movies, it was). And now your aunts and uncles all know what Wakanda is, when that used to be a deep dive comic book history question.
The Mandalorian right now is probably the best example of this. They’ve stripped the Star Wars mythos down to its basics, left a trail of breadcrumbs for every generation of Star Wars fans, and they are just telling simple adventure serials (the sort of stories which all Star Wars DNA comes from) with new characters at the center of it. The fact that the Jedi as a concept needed to be introduced to our lead made them all the more magical, both for long-time fans of the franchise, and the millions of young viewers digging in to this mythology for the first time. It’s not trying to be overly clever, or deconstruct anything. It’s just telling simple stories that lean into the DNA of what makes Star Wars great.
In pursuit of novel content, we overcomplicate things.
I think a lot of the gatekeepers of the industry can exacerbate this. They remember how a thing was done 30 years ago because they were there, and they bend over backwards not to repeat something familiar to them even if the repetition is more interesting and authentic to the character today, and the old story is completely unknown to the new reader. They also remember what things didn’t work in their youth, when comics and geek culture were an entirely different sort of thing than it is today. The biggest area I experienced that kind of gatekeeping was the rejection of sidekicks and teen superhero legacy characters with the kind of knee-jerk attitude you’d get growing up in an era where “Robin” was something corny that you’d roll your eyes at.
The rejection of the camp of the 1960s Batman TV show from fans who grew up in the following generation of geek meant a generation of decision-maker that hated bright saturated colors, and smiling teenage heroes, despite the fact that a whole new rising generation of creator and reader didn’t have any negative connotations to those kinds of characters and stories. In fact, the fans of those characters were out there creating their own content in fandom communities in lieu of the publisher pursuing that kind of content officially. I think it’s a simple fact that readers are drawn to characters roughly their age, and that’s been true forever. The fact that Batman 66 burned that trope out for a lot of people who started reading comics in the 70s and 80s doesn’t mean that math should still be considered a half-century later. It also ignores the intense popularity of the New Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, and youth-driven X-Books through the 1990s – The rejection of young characters at the big two started in earnest in the mid-late 2000s right as we as an industry stopped trying to win over young readers, opening the door for Manga to scoop them out from under our noses.
There’s a truism in comics that any single comic book might be somebody’s first comic, and despite that, we don’t write comics that way anymore. We get caught up on how a trope ran its course (and tropes do burn out from time to time), and then we continue rejecting them far longer than it’s necessary or smart to do so. So, the decision-makers take away storytelling tools from a rising generation of creators, who are so removed from the reasons that those tools have been taken away that they have to write against their instincts to play into what the decision-makers have deemed to be appropriate. And then a generation raised on comics that have deliberately ignored the more obvious, straightforward story tools let those prejudices become ingrained in themselves, rather than just telling simpler, straightforward stories.
This goes for Creator-Owned series as much as it does Superhero comics, although the back to basics storytelling is different in each genre and story type. I think more people would be best served by stripping things down to the core of what they’re trying to sell a reader… Something is Killing the Children drops a hero-style character with a mysterious backstory into the middle of what is meant to feel like a Stephen King novel, it’s got that bit of sensationalism in the title and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from killing kids in its pages, but aside from that it is trying to tell a simple, direct story playing with the classic shapes of serialized stories about heroes, and horror stories. Wynd is classic hero’s journey styled fantasy in a contemporary feeling fantasy setting and a queer protagonist, and some fun twists on how magic works. Department of Truth is a headier book, dealing with headier subject matter, but there’s still a simple sell at the heart of it - Do you want to learn more about dangerous conspiracy theories and their history, all decked out in cool looking art, and a handful of really cool, scary looking characters?
If I’m doing my job, every issue of each book fulfills the promise of what the book is meant to give you. Hopefully in exciting, interesting ways, but the simplicity is what makes any of it seem revelatory. In each case I tried to strip the story down to the basics of what I was trying to do, and then I just tried to execute that story to the best of my abilities. And if you pick up any issue of any of those comics, I think you can get a sense of what the book is and what I am trying to do with it.
It feels to me, that it is often better not to try and reinvent the wheel, and rather just try to build a really good wheel, point it in the right direction, and let it roll. That doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it, and there are a million phenomenal exceptions to the rule, but I look at the work that Brubaker and Phillips are doing right now as the pinnacle of the comics trade and the key example of what I’m talking about. They are executing simple stories masterfully, and they are consistently the best books in the field, year in and year out.
5. IN COMICS, ART IS KING
I mean, the header says it all, but comics are a visual medium, and without art it is nothing. We forget that.
In the 21st Century, writers have ruled the roost a bit too often in the superhero comics business, and I think the industry has suffered a bit because of that. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been incredible comics created in that time, but you look out there right now, and there is an entire generation of hungry young artists ready to show everyone what they’ve got, and the rising generation of writers would be much better served by playing more to those artists strengths, and working to show off how cool those artists can be, rather than working to only show themselves off.
This doesn’t mean make dumb, flashy comics. Make really smart, art-driven comics. Hell, having absolutely stunning outside-the-box art often means you CAN go more experimental, because readers still get something out of looking at how cool it all is, even if the story is challenging. But you know what? Yeah! There should be some dumb flashy comics out there pushing the boundaries of style in our side of the market. There should be superhero books that are exciting to look at on every single page. Good art makes simple stories better. Good art makes complicated stories better. And the definition of good art changes in different corners of our industry, but usually what it requires is being in sync with your artist. Recognize your strengths, and the artists’ strengths and lean toward them.
I said on twitter earlier this year that I think the goal of comic book writing should be the creation of stunning comic book art. And I believe that. Not at the expense of all else of course, but if you’re not working in sync with your artist to make the book look good, you are NOT going to make a good comic, no matter how good the idea is behind it. It’s all about a synergy of passion and intent, in service of the creators, for the benefit of the audience.
What our version of comics – monthly periodicals in the standard comic size – has over manga and most of what comes out of the book markets is SIZE. We have a bigger canvas, and can have more detailed characters and more detailed backgrounds. Not that you NEED details to make use of the canvas, but we do need to consider HOW we make use of that canvas and capitalize on the advantages that canvas gives us. We are offering dozens upon dozens of these phenomenal art books a week, every week of the year… And there are opportunities on every page of every on e of those books to do something dynamic and interesting that makes a reader lose their mind. Every book is different, and there are a million ways to answer the question of how to maximize the use of the canvas, but if you’re not considering it at all as a writer, then you’re wasting an opportunity to catch people’s attention.
I think you also have to give the reader what they are buying the book for in a visual language. You should have a great visual horror beat in every issue of a horror comic. A great visual action beat in every issue of a superhero comic. There are exceptions, where you can subvert expectations to an incredible effect, but you have to trade the image the audience expects for an equally dynamic image that is equally interesting to look at. If I have a more conversational issue of a superhero book, I try to showcase a dynamic new part of their superhero base, or show off a new gadget, or a new costume. There are a million ways to do it, but you have to consider if what you are trading what the readers expect when they pick the book up still makes the book feel like it was worth picking up.
I think, in general, there needs to be a bit more “Id” in our side of the comics business, which you usually only get when you unleash the artist. There needs to be more stuff that just feels and looks cool, and artists need to be empowered by writers and editors to let loose. Lean into the strengths of your artists and show off exactly what you love about their art on every page you can. Shake up how you write your comics. Experiment with plot style, or plot-hybrid, especially once you’ve gotten into a good rhythm with your collaborator. And then get out of their way as much as you can. That last bit I’m still working on. I’m a wordy motherfucker – (see this very newsletter for example) - and I write some talky comic books… But I’d like to think I’m getting better about being wordy in the right places, and letting the art drive the story – I think the more I’ve done that, the bigger an audience I’ve gotten, and the better I feel about the work. But it’s a process, and one I’m still going through, and my hope is my comics 5 years from now are much better than the comics I’m writing today.
At the end of the day, I think the underlying feeling of the piece often matters more than the polish you put on top of it, both in the writing and the art. When you as a creator get that feeling you know you’re trying to hit, don’t talk yourself out of hitting that raw nerve just because it doesn’t make 100% sense, or it’s a little out of step of the plot you initially laid out. Follow your gut. Try explaining the exact plot of most of the most seminal Anime and Manga out there… The plots aren’t always structurally coherent, but it leaves you with a feeling you carry with you forever, and moments that are absolutely incredible. The same goes for a lot of 90s Superhero comics, and the dynamism of those comics is still unparalleled. The whole market shouldn’t be like that, but in a world where your average geek has a million venues to get similar stories, the excesses of our style and art are often what makes our corner of the comics medium special. And leaning into those excesses opens up more doors than it closes.
Once again, this comes to the gatekeepers and decision-makers. It is the case far too often in comics that writers write comic scripts without knowing who the artist is, and sometimes that’s unavoidable given the pace that comics come out. But I think sometimes the gatekeepers get worried about letting new, exciting styles blossom because they are out of step with the kind of art that they loved growing up. This isn’t true across the board, and there are great people at the top of each company who get really excited about new talent in every direction it emerges and work to let that talent shine, but ultimately their job in corporate comics is often brand maintenance and they’re going to put the brakes on if something pushes the limits too much… That’s always going to be the case…
But we need to be the velociraptors, testing for weaknesses in the electric fences, trying to push the boundaries where we can, and see what we can get away with. This goes doubly for the rising generations of creators who have a whole vibrant world of comics that live in their head that the gatekeepers don’t see yet.
It’s our job to try and make them see what we see is possible.
QUESTION: How do we capture the imaginations of young, new readers when they graduate out of reading all this great middle grade and YA comic book content?
ANSWER: Tell classic, simple stories with new cool looking characters with jaw-droppingly awesome art that are more in conversation and competition with the dominant geek media of our time (Manga and Video Games) than the western comics of the past.
Or I’m wrong.
But that’s the math at the heart of everything I’m doing right now. Everything I’m looking to build in Gotham City, and with SIKTC, and with DOT, and with WYND… And even with RAZORBLADES, though the math there leans further into point #5 – That’s meant to be a showcase of a bunch of different styles of art that I want to see more of in our industry.
There’s a larger piece connected to all of this, which taps a bit into what I was saying about Gatekeepers…
I think a huge thing standing in the way of this industry progressing is that so few young people are in decision-making positions at the major comic book companies. That may finally be changing, but youth needs a voice in art that is targeted to youth. And I’m not even a youth anymore! I’m 33 years old! I have friends with children that are in SCHOOL! And I’m still a baby by the direct market industry standards. Somehow, I’ve spent a decade working in comics consistently being the youngest writer in the room. Thankfully I had more senior voices vouching for me when I was just getting started, and that saved my ass even when my tastes clashed with the folks on top of the ladder. In that time, the people greenlighting books have typically been the same people who were making decisions about which books to greenlight since I was in High School in the mid-00s, if not longer.
That might finally be changing now, but I think as the rising generation, we need to stop waiting for permission to do the sorts of comic books we think should exist in the world, and worry a bit less about ruffling the feathers of our elders. The people in those positions today didn’t wait for their predecessors to hand the keys over, they went out and built their own corners of publishers, or built wholly new publishers, or publications that gave them the clout to step up and take charge of the bigger industry players. I think there’s a larger problem in my generation that we’ve spent our whole lives waiting for the grown-ups to show up, and the truth is the grown-ups are always going to have their own interests at heart, not ours. There’s a sad truth at the heart of that equation, which is that it is very difficult to retire in comics. If you want to keep at it, you keep keep facing a growing pool of new generations of creators fighting for the same limited space to make the comics they want to see in the world. And the decisionmakers and gatekeepers are always going to favor their own peer group until they literally can’t afford to anymore. The rising generations are always going to need to fight to claim space in the industry, but ceding ground to the rising generation is always going to be necessary to bring new ideas into the conversation and let our corner of the medium evolve.
Structurally, we need to build a better endgame to the industry (And beyond that, even, a better path toward retirement in the country at large). I’m trying to build my career today with my life 50 years from now in focus. I want to own more of my own IP outright. I want to have equity in more characters I create for bigger companies. I want to create perennial sellers that will keep me comfortable through royalty payments. I’ll want to diversify outside of the medium so I can make enough money to keep making comics even if that’s not the avenue I continue to make a living out of. But it should be easier, and the people in power should be doing more to fight to make it easier for us, and we should be doing more to force their hand to build those roads so our elder statesmen stop fighting for space in the same bake-offs that we’re in, and they can focus on more personal work rather than still fighting with us paycheck to paycheck.
But even without that endgame in place, if the rising generations want a firmer hand in shaping and building the comics industry we want to live and work in, we need to take that firmer hand ourselves. I already see a lot of creators taking things into their own hands, with crowdfunding, and just making their own little weird side projects and I find all of that incredibly heartening. I want to see more of it.
We need to build more platforms for ourselves to do the sort of work that the big corporate gatekeepers aren’t going to understand, because it’s not for them. We also need to advocate within those big corporate settings to pursue more outside the box ideas in tune with our voices and our tastes. We need to talk more about our goals and dreams of what this industry can be, and have those conversations in public forums that have a longer memory than social media, so those discussions can become our history. We need to promote the most interesting work of our peers and hold them up as the new standards to help change the industry even faster, and those of us who get to the front of the line first need to do more to lift up the people coming up behind us.
I also think in general we MUST own more of our own intellectual property and more of the means of getting that intellectual property out in the world.
So, yeah. Those are the principles on which I want to build my work and my career over the next decade. Or maybe I’ll do this for a bit and then I’ll try and do a few books that defy each of these principles just for the heck of it.
I know a lot of my peers have newsletters of their own… I’d love to hear more about their guiding principles and ideals, and the kind of industry they want to see in the future.
Let’s start the conversation and see where it takes us.
RAZORBLADES: THE HORROR MAGAZINE
SO… Enough pontificating, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
As some of the folks who have emailed with me directly are aware, we’ve had a bit of a delay with Razorblades which put us a little over a month behind schedule getting the physical books out into the world. But I am very pleased to say that the books are now with our distributor, and at writing we’ve shipped out over half of all Razorblades orders placed back at the end of October. I’ve already seen the first few people on twitter receiving their copies at home. The goal will be to have almost everything shipped out by the end of the week, or the start of next week. We had a scary moment over the weekend where it looked like the whole shipping system we’re using might not work after hours of lining all the pieces up just right, but THANKFULLY that was not the case.
I want to apologize for this. There were a pile-up of inconveniences back in November that lead to the delays. I was buried under deadlines while dealing with some family health issues. We had so much revenue come in that Gumroad kept flagging it and delaying the transfer to my bank account, which delayed payment to the printer long enough to run into Thanksgiving, and so on from there, with Covid-based shipping delays rearing their head as well. I hope everyone forgives us the hiccups as we got our whole system in order here for the first time. I’m really excited to get my hands on my own physical copies of the book when I get back to Brooklyn next week.
I’m considering setting the print run of #3 in advance, since we have the Subscription sales accounted for, which will allow us to sell through our stock without needing to wait for an order window to be resolved. There’s a risk of us ending up with too many copies or the book selling out, but I think I overcomplicated the system last time. The most important thing to me is getting physical copies of #3 in readers hands much closer to the launch date. Right now, we’re targeting either the third or fourth week of January to drop the third issue online, and we’ll open up sales at that time. There will probably be a special edition only available on launch day, but I need to game that out as well.
All of this is still up in the air, and I am considering all options. But there will be more news about #3 coming up SOON. We’ve got some tremendous talent lined up for the issue and I’ll start crowing about it in the New Year, hopefully as subscribers get their hands on their copies of #1 & 2.
Also: Starting in January, we are going to shift from the Gumroad store to a Shopify store on my new Tiny Onion Studios website, which we are aiming to launch the first week of January. That should help resolve some of our issues with the system paying us out, and help the shipping process in general. When the new site is up, we’re going to close down the Gumroad site for good. If you want to buy copies of Razorblades or enamel pins or anything like it.
Meanwhile, we’ve lined up tremendous talent for Issues #4 & 5, and I just about died when I got the cover to Issue #4 in my inbox.
Tomorrow, I’ll get into Batman and Joker, and then we’ll do the rest on Thursday, but I think this is enough to whet your whistle today! But in case you don’t know, the BATMAN ANNUAL #5 with art by James Stokoe is out in stores today, and it’s one of my favorite issues that I’ve done all year! Go pick it up!
James Tynion IV